He did not have to be there. He could have ridden out the war on convalescence or light rear echelon duty. But there he was, leading a meaningless ford of a meaningless canal when a German bullet found his handsome head on November 4, 1918, one week almost to the hour before the Armistice that everyone knew was coming was declared. His parents, back England would open the telegram as church bells pealed the news. In death Second Lieutenant Wilfred Owen—his promotion to First Lieutenant would arrive a day too late—would become hailed as the greatest poet of the charnel house called The Great War.
He started life, of course, as something else.
He was born in the comfortable home of his English mother’s father near Oswestry in Shropshire on March 18, 1893. His Welch father was a low level railroad functionary. Wilfred was the oldest of four children who adored their mother. She would imbue them all with a religious fervor rooted in evangelistic Anglicanism.
In 1897 the grandfather died and the comfortable home was sold. The family was forced into crowded quarters to match his father’s limited income. They moved frequently as his father was transferred back and forth between Birkenhead in Cheshire and Shrewsbury back in Shropshire. Eventually his father was raised to the dignity of station master.
The family was of the lowest level middle class, distinguished from the top rungs of the skilled working class not by income, but by simply working with paper and not getting dirty hands. They looked on their betters with ambitious longing. It was the perfect combination of Anglican loyalty and yearning for respectability for the creation of loyal Tories.
Young Wilfred was educated at Birkenhead Institute and at Shrewsbury Technical School. He did well enough, but not too well. At age 10 he discovered John Keats and other English romantic poets and fell in love. Together with the majestic cadences of the familiar King James Version of The Bible they were the influences on his style. He began writing his own poetry and became by his late teenage years quite competent, if unoriginal.
Owen completed his education at the Wyle Cop school in Shrewsbury where he was both a pupil and a teacher to the younger children. In 1911 he passed the matriculation exam for the University of London. But he failed to win top honors which would have made him eligible for a scholarship. His family could not afford the tuition.
Instead he went to work as a lay assistant to the Vicar of Dunsden near Reading. He was given free board and hoped to earn enough money—or the patronage of the Vicar—to continue his education. He attended University College, Reading studying botany part time and attracted the attention of the head of the English department who encouraged him to study Old English.
His time at Dusden was disillusioning. He found the once familiar liturgies of the Church uninspiring and incapable of inspiring his natural faith. Worse, he found the established church cold, indifferent, even hostile to the plight of the poor and working classes to which he was reminded rudely that he belonged.
A proclivity for French proved a way out. In 1913 he found work as a private tutor of English and French at the Berlitz School of Languages in Bordeaux, France. Later, he went into the service of a private family. Owen found relatively egalitarian France a relief from the rigid constraints of the British class system which offered him seeming not path forward beyond the life of drudge clerk.
His horizons were further expanded when he met Laurent Tailhade a 69 year old poet famed for his satirical verse and his unapologetic anarchism. Tailhade encouraged his literary ambitions and the two continued to correspond after Owen returned to England.
When war broke out in 1914 Owen was in a quandary. He considered enlisting in the French army, but the life of an enlisted Poilu had little appeal. The war was well under way when Owen finally enlisted in the Artists’ Rifles Officers’ Training Corps, a unit of the Territorial Army. He likely held out in hopes of becoming an officer. He trained for seven month in Essex before being conditionally commissioned and assigned to the 2nd Manchester Regiment.
Owen was singularly unimpressed by the quality of his men, recruited from the gritty lower working classes of industrial Manchester. They brought out the latent Tory in him, along with the arrogance that often seems come with fresh faced baby officers assigned to war weary veteran troops. He described his men in a letter home as louts and “expressionless lumps.”
None the less he arrived in France to go into battle with them just after Christmas, 1916. He wasted no time discovering horror. For four months he and his men were in and out of the front lines or, as he put it frankly in a letter to his mother, “I can see no excuse for deceiving you about these 4 days. I have suffered seventh hell. I have not been at the front. I have been in front of it.”
Owen suffered several harrowing experiences. He suffered a concussion in a fall into a shell crater. He was blown into the air by the impact of a trench mortar and spent days stunned and wounded lying with the remains of another officer on an embankment in Savy Wood. Whatever romantic notions of warfare he may have entertained at the beginning were blown skyward with him—and so, nearly was his mind.
Diagnosed with neurasthenia or shell shock and deemed “unfit to lead troops,” Owen was shipped home, arriving back in Britain on May 2, 1917. He was sent to convalesce at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh which was pioneering in the treatment of “the thousand yard stare.”
Owen stay at Craiglockhart would profoundly change the rest of his short life. He had begun to try to process his war experience in poems, but he was still locked in the form and style of Keats and Shelly, not suitable for the gut wrenching subject matter. His doctor, Arthur Brock encouraged him to process the nightmares and dreams of war he was having into poetry as a kind of therapy. That began a transformation.
But Owen was most deeply affected by the arrival of an already famed war poet, as a patient in the same hospital. Sassoon represented a lot of what Owen had always aspired to be. He came from a wealthy family, if not an entirely proper one. His father a member of the Iraqi/Jewish Sassoon merchant family, disinherited for marrying a wealthy Anglo-Catholic. He was brought up in a stately house, well educated at Cambridge even if he failed to get a degree, a devoted cricketer, and a rising poet. He enlisted when the war broke out and served in France with conspicuous bravery even as he became embittered by the war.
While on convalescence Sassoon, who was already well known, had a scathing letter attacking British motives and conduct in the war published in the press. Deeply embarrassed, the brass hustled him to Craiglockhart on the pretext of treatment for shell shock.
In no time at all Sassoon took Owen under his wing. It started out as a worshipful mentor/apprentice relationship with Sassoon going over Owen’s work, gently critiquing it, making suggestions, and urging him to not spare on the ugly realities they both had experienced.
But the relationship blossomed into something much more. Call it love, filial or carnal, take your pick. Sassoon was homosexual and comfortable with it. Owen was repressed and in denial. Slowly he began to open up and hints of homo-erotica began to appear in his work. Were they actually lovers? Opinion is divided and evidence is scant. At Owen’s request letters and journal that would have provided a clue were burned after his death. Despite living a long life and being both a memoirist and the author of a thinly veiled autobiographic novel trilogy, Sassoon never publicly acknowledged a physical relationship with Owen, although he was open about other relationships.
Some of the poems he worked out under the influence of Dr. Brock and Sassoon were the first and only publication of his work during his life-time was in the hospital magazine The Hydra
Sassoon also introduced Owen to a wider literary world on the frequent outings from the hospital—Sassoon’s close friend and Army comrade Robert Graves, Robert Ross, H. G. Wells, and Arnold Bennett. Heady company indeed.
After being discharged from the hospital in November 1917, Owen was posted to light home duty at Scarborough. He maintained a correspondence with Sassoon. He visited with other homosexual literary figures via introductions from Sassoon including Oscar Wilde’s friend Robbie Ross, poet Osbert Sitwell, and C. K. Scott-Moncrieff, the translator of Proust. There is circumstantial evidence that he may have had a relationship with the latter who dedicated later work to Mr. O.W.
In March of 1918 Owen was recovered enough to be assigned to the Northern Command Depot at Ripon to await re-assignment. During his months there he worked intensively on some of the poems which would become the best known. He knew that he could easily get an assignment in Britain or well behind the lines in France. But now, seeing a real career as a poet open up before him, he began to ponder if he should get back into action to validate his status as a war poet—perhaps, like Sassoon, even being decorated for gallantry in action.
Sassoon was violently opposed to Owen’s return to action writing him that he would “stab him in the leg” to keep him out. But Sassoon himself went back. After a brief tour in Palestine, he was on the front lines in France in July and almost immediately severely wounded in the head in a friendly fire mishap.
In the last days of August Owen returned to the front with the 2nd Manchesters. He was involved in heavy fighting in October storming German strong points near the village of village of Joncourt.
On November 4 he fell in action.
Shortly afterwards he received his belated Military Cross citation for the action at Joncourt.
Back in a British military hospital, it was not until months later that Sassoon learned of his friend’s loss. He was devastated. But he also became obsessed with brining Owen’s work to public attention.
After the war Owen’s poetry was embraced by returning Tommies and the war weary public as a whole. He soon eclipsed Sassoon’s fame. He remained highly popular in Britain, if less well known in the U.S. until World War II, when both the anti-war sentiment and grim reality fell out of favor. The British government, in fact, nearly erased Owen’s work from memory as far as it was able fearing the effect on moral.
It was not until the Ban the Bomb years of the early 1960’s that Owen’s poetry began a revival. Composer Benjamin Britain would set several of Owen’s poems to music in War Requiem, first performed for the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral in 1962.
Several novelists and playwrights dealt with the relationship between Owen and Sassoon.
Here is one of Owen’s most famous pieces. Still not for the faint hearted after all of these years.
Dulce et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.